The top US general overseeing forces in the Middle East told lawmakers he brushed aside an apparent offer by the Taliban to let US troops take control of Afghanistan’s capital city as international evacuations from Kabul turned chaotic last month.
Senior Taliban official Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar suggested the option to CENTCOM commander Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie during a hastily-arranged meeting in Doha on August 15.
"That is not why I was there, that was not part of my instruction, and we did not have the resources to undertake that mission,” McKenzie told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
The CENTCOM commander acknowledged he arrived in the Qatari capital with a plan to coordinate with Baradar on keeping Taliban forces 30 km outside Kabul, but he denied news reports that he threatened to strike Taliban forces if they entered the city.
By the time of the Doha meeting, the insurgents had already entered the city’s downtown, the general told Congress today.
Afghan security forces largely disintegrated in the capital as the Taliban advanced, leading Baradar to suggest that either the insurgents or US troops could restore order in the city. McKenzie said he did not accept the Taliban leader’s suggestion in part because he “did not consider that to be a formal offer."
The CENTCOM chief said he could not confirm whether President Biden was informed of the exchange, but said the Pentagon’s top brass were. Spokespeople for the Pentagon and White House did not return Al-Monitor’s request for comment by publication time.
“If someone actually made a decision, that would’ve been me,” Gen. McKenzie acknowledged publicly today for the first time. The top US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, also witnessed the exchange, which was first reported by The Washington Post.
The Taliban’s assumption of a security role outside Kabul airport in coordination with US commanders has emerged as one of the most controversial developments of the Biden administration’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Reports of insurgent fighters attacking civilians attempting to reach the airport, including US citizens, and a deadly suicide bombing that struck the airfield’s Abbey gate have cast a pall over the administration’s emphasis on the unprecedented speed of the evacuations.
In addition to the violence, thousands of Afghan civilians breached the airport’s perimeter and rushed the active runway early in the US evacuation mission, leading to several deaths.
The deaths resulting from the breach, which occurred as Taliban insurgents took up security positions around the airport in coordination with US commanders, are currently under investigation by the US Air Force.
Just days prior to the Doha meeting, President Biden ordered the military to secure the evacuation of the US embassy in Kabul as a Taliban blitz swept across Afghanistan.
The White House approved McKenzie’s plans to secure the evacuations with some 3,000 US troops – far too few to take control of the sprawling capital. Biden had previously ordered the military to “go to zero” troops in Afghanistan by early September.
Senior defense officials testified in a pair of marathon Congressional hearings Tuesday and Wednesday that they failed to foresee the Taliban’s lightning advance into Kabul. US intelligence estimates generally predicted the fall of the Afghan capital sometime in the spring of 2022, the CENTCOM commander told Senate lawmakers on Tuesday.
“One of the assumptions of the… plan was that the Afghan military would be able to continue to secure [Hamid Karzai International Airport], the airfield,” McKenzie acknowledged today, confirming Al-Monitor's earlier reporting.
The quick disintegration of Afghan security forces in the capital led the Pentagon to rush an additional nearly 3,000 troops into Kabul to secure the airfield, executing a contingency plan which top officials said had been prepared in advance.
The Biden administration has weathered blistering criticism for its handling of the withdrawal, which precipitated the complete collapse of the Kabul government, loss of billions of dollars worth of US-made military equipment and a total victory for the Taliban.
During this week’s hearings, Republican lawmakers honed on statements by McKenzie and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley that their professional assessments during the current administration was that US forces should not withdraw without a political agreement between the Taliban and Kabul government.
President Biden told ABC News last month that his top advisors were “split” on the decision, and that none said maintaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan would result in stability.
“My hope was that we could reach a negotiated settlement,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told House lawmakers today.
“A stalemate would provide the opportunity to do that, for both sides to negotiate in earnest if neither side believed they were going to win,” Austin said.
“We just never reached that point, because the Taliban had advantages because we weren’t striking them [and] we released prisoners,” he said, in reference to the Donald Trump administration’s agreement with the Afghan insurgents.
“We all render our advice. Presidents make decisions and we execute,” Milley said.